Princes in Exile Commentary

Summer camp movies are prime vehicles for coming of age stories. Any narrative genre that removes children from parental oversight and locates them with their age set, in a rural setting with little adult supervision will involve tests of character and opportunities for growth. In many summer camp movies, this generic possibility is purposely abandoned in favour of inane comedy. But, Princes in Exile (1990) is a serious movie with serious intent and it explores the conventions of the genre to the full.

The kids at Camp Hawkins all have cancer. Most of them are going to die from it; in fact, one of them does. How the other campers deal with this death and with their own mortality is the subject of this finely crafted film. While the pacing of Princes in Exile is a bit slow and the unnecessarily detailed medical descriptions of various types of cancer sound a bit like a medical brochure, these are minor faults. The film benefits from outstanding performances from its young actors, a nicely balanced screenplay, and crisp editing.

The story follows the emotional journey of Ryan (Zachary Ansley), who has brain cancer. He is understandably bitter about how this disease will likely prevent him from growing up and becoming a doctor. Ryan carries his grudge against the disease to camp, where he is at first surly and uncooperative. No one is going to force him to enjoy himself even a little bit. Ryan keeps a diary in which he records his every dark and resentful thought. He has only two goals in life: to publish his journal and to lose his virginity before he dies.

At Camp Hawkins, Ryan meets his alter ego, Robert (Nick Shields). While Ryan is completely focused on the destination, which is death, Robert focuses on the ride. He is well-built and handsome. He jumps the highest and runs the fastest, daring himself and others to live life to the full precisely because it is going to be brief. If Ryan is dark and brooding, Robert is golden.

Standing between them is Louis (Gordon Woolvett), who is the practical, everyman character between these two heroes. It is Gordon who first understands what they all need: to stare death in the eye and not be beaten by it; and to do that in a constructive way. The campers have been told by camp director, Dr. Merritt (Chuck Shamata), that they can either choose to take part in a skit at the end of their holiday, or they can choose to make a sculpture that will memorialize their group. Louis has the idea that they will build a wall out of any flammable material they can find. They are to make this wall as ugly as possible; it will represent cancer. On the last night of camp, they will burn it to the ground.

Little by little, Ryan begins to come out of his self-imposed shell. When Ryan approaches the pretty infirmary nurse with a view to accomplishing his second life goal, she deftly refuses him with the plain truth: she is on staff and so any involvement with a camper would be unethical; besides which, she is too old for him. Then she offers to be friends. Dr. Merritt convinces Ryan that he is the only camper who can help disillusion an eight year old boy from believing he is a demon. The boy thinks that his cancer is a curse that has been imposed on him because he is bad. In a sweet interchange with the boy, Ryan pretends to exorcise the demon. Slowly and by degrees, the camp staff and Ryan’s fellow campers re-connect him with life. It is as though he were thawing out.

Still in pursuit of achieving his second life goal, Ryan develops a friendship with Holly (Stacie Mistysyn). It is having to deal with Robert’s death from cancer and with the promise of love with Holly that finally frees Ryan from his existential posing. He talks with Dr. Merritt about what it takes to be a good doctor. He accepts a leadership role with the younger campers. He becomes part of the community and helps with the building of a wooden bike ramp in memory of Robert. This is added to the wall as is Ryan’s journal on the night of the bonfire. He now understands that it is a record of his pain and that it is time to enjoy the life he has.

It’s a difficult task to construct a screenplay for a movie like this. It would be so easy to give way to mawkish sentiment. But Wiesenfeld employs a direct style that matches the film’s message. The characters simply acknowledge the elephant in the room and get on with the reality of life.

Ansley, Woolvett, and Mistysyn are extraordinary in this film. Ansley’s tightly controlled body language and facial expression express a range of conflicting emotions, from anger and fear to stoicism. Woolvett is the consummate regular guy who will always do the right thing. Mistysyn manages to portray a fine mix of seriousness and humour, understanding and affection.

A CBC/ NFB co-production, Princes in Exile won the award for Best Screenplay (Joe Wiesenfeld) at the Montreal World Film Festival in 1990 and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Special Mention – Giles Walker). In 1992, it was nominated for several Gemini awards including Best Performance by a Supporting Actor (Gordon Woolvett), Best Editing (Richard Todd), Best Sound (Les Halman), Best TV Movie and was awarded the prize for Best Writing for a Drama Program or Mini Series (Joe Wiesenfeld).

Evelyn Ellerman